How To Stand Out In The Inbox

September 21, 2017
Written by
Will Boyd
Opinions expressed by Twilio contributors are their own

How To Stand Out In The Inbox

Competition for attention in the inbox has been a theme I’ve heard throughout my career in email marketing. Once your email has arrived in the inbox, it's competing for your recipient’s attention with all the other emails in their inbox.

On a lot of levels, this makes sense. Your recipients only have so much time in their day and only so much attention to give to their inbox. This concept of “standing out in the inbox” has led to much research and debate around how to craft the perfect subject line to entice recipients to open, what type of "friendly from" name might get the best open rates, and so on.

The logic goes that if a sender can just get the recipient to open their message, the wonderful content being sent will take care of the rest. While there is some truth to all of this, the ever-changing realities of how inbox providers judge emails means that email marketers need to continually adapt their thinking and strategies.

Bring a critical eye to your program

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I talk a lot about how inbox providers are working to make sure only wanted email reaches the inbox. I keep bringing this up because this one point is the critical lens through which successful email marketers should view almost all aspects of their email program.

Great marketers always look at their statistics and results to identify both positive and negative signals they see from recipients. Obviously, events like spam reports from recipients are negative signals.
When looking at stats, however, it is equally important to realize that not all seemingly positive signals say the same thing.
For example, when taken alone and out of context, an open is not necessarily a signal that your mail is wanted.

What your open rates really mean

There are many reasons a recipient might open a message. Not all of those reasons indicate that the recipient wants what is being sent. A recipient may have opened a message to see who the message is really from since it’s common to see a personal from name in your inbox that you don’t recognize.

For instance, a recipient may have signed up to hear from Company A, but when they receive email with a from name that is that company’s CEO’s name, they may not recognize that name and open the message out of curiosity. Similarly, a recipient could open a message out of curiosity due to the subject line. Once again, this does not necessarily indicate that the message in question was wanted by the recipient.

Does this mean a sender should not try to increase opens by optimizing their from information and subject lines? Absolutely not! It does mean, though, that a sender should not base their optimization efforts on an increase in opens for one campaign.

Tactics geared toward boosting open rates based on only piquing subscriber curiosity can have a negative impact over time. After all, the key to the inbox is sending wanted email. If the curious opener ultimately does not want the mail they are receiving, they will be more likely to report your message as spam or simply disengage with future messages you send them.

Setting (and following) recipient expectations

It is certainly important to put forward your best subject lines and to optimize the friendly from used for your messages. It is equally important to realize that you, as the sender, have more to compete within the inbox than just messages from other senders.
One of the most important competitors you have as a sender is the recipient’s expectations of what they wish to receive from you.
Depending on how your recipients signed up for your emails, they may have differing expectations of what they wish to receive. The content you are sending will then have a substantial impact on long-term engagement with your messages.

If you send the same content over and over to the same recipients, it is likely that those recipients will become fatigued with your message and will disengage. In these cases, making a change in your friendly from name or crafting an enticing subject line will not be enough to maintain positive engagement over time.

Tips to help you stand out in the inbox

With the above in mind, here are some suggestions on how to properly optimize your friendly from name and subject lines with particular emphasis on building positive, long-term engagement:
  • Use a friendly from name that recipients will recognize as being a sender they’ve signed up to hear from. If a recipient signed up to hear from your company, they may not have any idea who “Janet Smith” is at your company. While this tactic might help boost your opens for a campaign or two, it can also contribute to more spam complaints. If you use a personal name in your friendly from, consider appending to that name the name of your brand to help recipients understand who the sender is. For example, instead of using “Will Boyd” as a friendly from name, I might choose to use “Will Boyd, SendGrid” or something similar.
  • Try to avoid “clickbait” style subject lines that are not consistent with your brand’s voice and message. Inconsistent voice and message can be a turnoff to recipients and lead to disengagement, spam complaints, or both.
  • Review your signup processes to see how your recipients’ expectations are set at the time they give you their email address. Is it clear to a recipient what you will be sending them, how often you will be messaging them, and why they want to open and engage with your messages? Anything you can do to improve this expectation setting with help you build and maintain an email list with healthy engagement.
  • Make sure the content you are sending provides value to your recipients and meets or exceeds the expectations set at the time of address collection. Exceeding expectations can be a tough thing to measure. However, it is important to put yourself in the recipient’s shoes to help you understand what those subscribers wanted from you when they provided you their address.


When your subscribers signed up for your email, they wanted something from you as the sender. As long as you are meeting or exceeding those expectations, they will open and engage with your emails.

Keeping this in mind while crafting the many elements of your campaigns will help you balance the need to generate more opens while not driving subscribers to the land of disengagement or spam complaints. For more on how to ensure your email is delivered from a more technical standpoint, check out our Email Deliverability Guide.

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